Of Flags and Fetishes – The Paris Attacks and A Misplaced Politics of Solidarity: Debaditya Bhattacharya

This is a guest post by DEBADITYA BHATTACHARYA

Megan Garber’s article ‘#PrayForParis: When Empathy Becomes a Meme’, published in The Atlantic (November 16, 2015) has claimed that Paris hashtags and French flag filters on Facebook make for an “act of mass compassion” – a “compassion that has been converted, via the Internet’s alchemy, into political messaging”.

flag filter2

I have absolutely no problems with flag filters on Facebook. Or for that matter, profile-picture revolutions that happen all too often. I’m not, in the least bit indignant about such a competitive exhibitionism of feeling – indexed through a currency of memes and emoticons. In an age of such mass-production of violence (‘terroristic’ or ‘humanitarian’), it is no surprise that the event of mourning must become a symptom of the incompatibility between ‘act’ and ‘response’.

A funereal Facebook must therefore bleed profile pictures, because that seems the only charter of our most intimate emotions. We naturally do not care if Facebook is using the Paris tragedy as a marketing platform, as long as it helps us reclaim a deeply ‘personal’ angst in the face of more-than-a-hundred ‘spectacular’ deaths.

Tragedies that translate into capital have a perverse legitimacy. Which is why the Iraq invasion has been easily cheer-led into countless “pitiless wars” by actors on both sides of history. The everyday routines of nameless faceless horror fail to muster the Aristotelian grandeur of ‘tragedy’, and therefore must be glossed over while the buck is passed on. Outrage should be reserved and selectively apportioned unto events that shade the world conveniently into flag-colours and religions: into Syrians and Parisians, the bad Muslim and good Muslim, terror-attacks and humanitarian intervention. The mass-murder in France can now justifiably allow us to see the world as divided into two moral constituencies: the good and evil, without a hint of complication or complicity. The mythological fantasy of a world of united interests — fighting the supernatural scourge of the devil — is suddenly possible in our times of stark nuclear realism.

Outrage now must know how to multiply itself in the sheer numerical explosion of profile pictures, brandishing which side of this ‘holy war’ we are on. We are a people fighting death with digital ammunition – because the narrative that we find ourselves in exactly resembles a videogame. There are rules, of course — like, French flag-filters must by default dye clean all traces of ‘feeling’ for Palestine. Because, way back in 2014, France was the first to ban all pro-Palestine demonstrations as well as social media posts about such ‘illegal’ protests. French flag-filters would mean little angst about the 20 November attacks in Mali – which left at least 21 dead and over 100 kept hostage for nine long hours! – only making it to Page 7 news in most mainstream newspapers. French flag-filters would mean little concern for the complete media blackout on the way civilians in Syria are being mercilessly swatted by a retaliatory air-sport without any deployment of ground troops. French flag-filters would also ensure little discomfort over the recent ‘security alerts’ in Paris amounting to massive militarization of public space and curtailment of civil freedoms. A tricolour-fetish naturally blinkers our vision of history beyond the refracted memory of a transcendental ‘event’.

We forget that the anti-terror campaign is as easily lubricated by this industry of outrage as America’s war against ISIS is oiled by its own en-Gulfing hunger. Signature campaigns must reproduce the binary of the terrible terrorists as ‘not like us’ and we must wall-spout ‘Je Suis’ slogans as finally legislating a free market of (always morally righteous!) emotion. The rhetorical charge of ‘terrorism’ has made possible a multinational order of nationalism – where each one of us can potentially impersonate every other of the ‘virtuous’ (because, modern and developed) nations at once. All we need is an “empathy button” on Facebook – as Megan Garber calls it. It is easy to claim identification with victims we have never known, and concurrently mark difference from an order of the ‘intimate other’ parading as ‘refugees’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘racial minorities’. To ‘flag’ the victim as a perfectly identifiable unity of the ‘we-and-us’ and the criminal as a wholly-and-radically ‘other’ that we need not account for (whether in civil life or census reports!) is the social media understanding of justice.

I still can live away the flag filters on Facebook, despite the colour-shaded binary understanding of the world that it promotes through an urgency of emotion. Such a mass-registering of indignation – we are consoled – proves that the vacuous spectre of humanity is still not entirely desensitised to death and destruction. True, we discriminate between the dead (and I’m not invoking just the twin spectres of Baghdad and Beirut here!) – but there’s still a little hope between now and the time when death becomes no more than statistical data. There’s still a little bit of the human left in us, all social media analysts tell us in a voice modulated with an extra dollop of pathos.

What disturbs me is that this digital residue of the ‘human’ is no premise for what is termed as a coming to political consciousness. The minimum essence of the ‘universal human’ necessarily assumes the moral high-ground of ‘humanitarianism’. It is a logical outcome of a history of modernity that begins with the humanist man as its subject, passes through the ethnological discourse of cultural otherness in ‘human rights’ and is now at the service of a neo-imperial project of humanitarian intervention-as-charity. To view the Paris massacre as meriting an act of charity (as giving away what was earlier one’s own – a profile picture!) on social media is regressive “political messaging” – not an act of solidarity. It views the dead as simply eliciting a moral-emotional response, while brushing away the weight of political conscience into the backyards of history. It can be an outlet for outrage, but it is separated from every claim to solidarity by the very space of reason. One needs to think through outrage, in order to escape its erotic charm. A politics of solidarity should be precisely that act of thinking-through, which cracks the easy binary and the moral dualism as this video helps us do.


The expression of solidarity always runs the risk of a reductive analogy between those living and the ones killed, the third-party observers and the victims. It desperately searches for a common ground of experience – and in the lack of any such, posits a universal moral imaginary of ‘human-ness’ as collapsing the specificities of history. Solidarity therefore often becomes an excuse for reproducing the value of the ‘good’ as same-ness (with ‘us’) and as replaceable (with ‘them’). The most recognizable form of solidarity monotonously repeats that “it could have been any one of us”. The constant need to imagine oneself as potentially vulnerable to the forces of ‘evil’ not only repeats the melodramatic solipsism of ‘virtue’ that Euro-American international policy reeks of – but also indicates an unwillingness to engage with the other on its own terms. Incidentally, the ‘empathy’ demanded by an act of digital moulting performs a similar uncritical erasure of history.

To conclude with the discomfiture of memory, the last that our country witnessed such an upsurge of mediatised nationalism was when Modi announced his pet project ‘Digital India’ at the Silicon Valley. The 800 million Indians who were reported to be digitally empowered by the project are also the ones without minimum access to one or more basic infrastructures like food, housing, electricity, education or employment. Who then were our tricolour-filters expressing solidarity with? The victims of structural forms of social deprivation or the harbingers of a token empowerment?

indian flag filter2

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature in a Calcutta University college. He thanks Rina Ramdev for sharing in the discomfort and discussion, occasioned by Garber’s piece.

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